Debra Haverson Psychotherapy Services LLC

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Trauma Comes in All Shapes and Sizes

This short article is not intended to provide a comprehensive understanding of trauma, but rather just to make the point that a wide range of life experiences qualify as being traumatic. Even people who feel they have led relatively problem-free, happy lives may have experienced things that left a strong impression that, to varying degrees, shapes their personality and current perceptions of the world.
Some trauma is obvious – violent events, tragic losses, natural disasters – and it’s easy to understand why it affects people for years and perhaps even the rest of their lives. This is called big T Trauma. Many people don’t realize, however, that exposure to smaller events during which a person feels hurt – what is called little t trauma – can also lead to mental health problems and the development of unhealthy ways of expressing our personalities. The examples in the following table might make this a bit easier to understand.


Multiple events



Big T trauma

Experiencing a serious car accident, earthquake, act of violence (beating, rape), severe injury, etc.

People living in war zones often witness and experience one major acts of violence and loss after another.

Repeated beatings or episodes of sexual molestation over many years; living in an area devastated by hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, or violence.

Little T trauma

Feeling in physical or emotional danger for a finite period of time. Temporary lengthy absence of a caregiver due to events such as business trips or hospitalization.

Periodically not having sufficient food, housing, or other basic needs; verbal or emotional neglect or abuse, physical neglect (e.g., as child); multiple losses of loved ones through abandonment, moving or death; a period during which someone is bullied or socially excluded.

Same as box to left. Even seemingly minor things, like being called “stupid” or “ugly” daily or unpredictability in a parent’s response to a child, can produce deep emotional wounds.

An individual may experience being born with cognitive, physical and/or neurological differences as a trauma.

Big and little together

One example: while mourning the loss of a loved one, there is a major fire in your home.

Again, during war, people are often living with multiple occurrences of both big and little traumas.

Within the context of chronic emotional abuse or deprivation, there are also regular episodes of violence, tragedy and/or natural disaster. When a person has many things, he or she is said to have complex trauma.

Stop for a moment and consider situations you know of or have experienced yourself that may fit into one of these nine boxes. While it’s human tendency to try to rank or categorize, to label one experience harder or worse than another, all traumatic experience hurts and leaves an imprint. People adapt or try to make sense of this experience, and this coping strategy may be either healthy or maladaptive. Additionally, all individuals have differing capacities for remaining strong in the face of difficulty – a quality known as resiliency. For each person, the question arises: Am I happy and coping with my life at this time? Many people manage to appear strong or stay distracted from these hurts, and it is not until another traumatic event occurs that they feel flooded with feeling from earlier events.

Trauma can also be vicarious and multi-generational. Children with parents who survived war or disasters are heavily affected by the emotional wounds left on their parents. As children, we also intuitively sense the losses, tragedies and hardships that the family has borne over prior generations. Sometimes the pain is visible – generational patterns of physical abuse, suicide, mental illness, or racial oppression. Sometimes individuals are carrying around pain that began many generations earlier but has become ingrained in the family’s way of being at a more subtle level. [The work of Bert Hellinger explores this topic in depth.]

We are all capable of some degree of change. Healing begins with the acknowledgement that it’s OK to feel and show our pain and to seek help. It may be uncomfortable and unpleasant to do this; however, suppression, avoidance and denial don’t really help us overcome trauma – they just temporarily let us think we have or, alternatively, they let us think that external events and people cause our unhappiness. Healing then continues as we learn to be present with the pain and develop an awareness of how it drives our reactions and choices in life.

© 2008 Debra Haverson

© 2011 Some photos by Rebecca Haverson

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